By: Galina Olivera-Celdran, PhD
Loss is an integral part of our lives, and we experience it on a daily basis. We lose tangible things, like treasured possessions and relationships, or intangible things, like hopes and dreams and a sense of security. Significant changes such as death, divorce, change of a job disrupt our sense of order and security and force us to adapt to living in new ways.
Grieving is a natural response to loss, like crying when we are hurt and sleeping when we are tired. When we lose something important to us, we experience emotional wounds that can only be healed by grieving the loss. Grief is a misunderstood and neglected process in life. Responding to any loss, especially death, is often awkward, uncomfortable, even frightening for both grievers and helpers and that’s why those concerned may avoid dealing with grief.
When someone in the family dies, everyone’s emotions are different, and the time it takes to grieve is different for everyone too. Though our reactions may be different, most of us go through the same stages of denial, anger, bargain, and depression until we finally come to accept the loss and regain hope for the future. People often think of the stages as lasting weeks or months. They forget that the stages are responses to feelings that can last for minutes or hours as we flip in and out of one and then another. We do not enter and leave each individual stage in a linear fashion. We may feel one, then another, and back again to the first one.
Denial is refusing to see things the way they are. “I can’t believe it’s happening to me. It must be a dream,” are usually the first thoughts that go through our minds when something tragic happens. Denial helps to cushion the emotional shock that comes with the first moments of experiencing the loss. It is dangerous though to stay in this stage for too long, since ignoring the problem does not make it go away. On the contrary, if that’s a serious wound, we need to take care of it as soon as possible, otherwise we’ll die from bleeding.
Bargaining is an attempt to change the course of events to take away the loss or the pain it brings with it. Bargaining is very common when we are threatened to lose someone we love. “Lord,” we may plead, “I will dedicate my whole life to you, I will do whatever you want me to do, just don’t let it happen.” After the loss we become lost in a maze of “if only…” or “What if…” statements. We want life returned to what it used to be. We want to go back in time: recognize the illness more quickly, stop the accident from happening… if only, if only, if only. As we move through the bargaining process, the mind alters past events while exploring all those “what if” and “if only” statements. Sadly, the mind inevitably comes to the same conclusion… the tragic reality of a loss.
Anger takes over when the reality floods in. “Why me? What did I do to deserve it?” Anger is a frequent response to feeling powerless, frustrated, or even abandoned. Anger is also a common response to feeling threatened; a significant loss can threaten a person’s basic beliefs about self and about life in general. We look for someone to blame. If a spouse dies, his wife may be angry at his doctors or his employer. She may even be mad at her husband for not taking a better care of himself. She feels abandoned and betrayed by someone who she thought would always take care of her. That gradually leads to blaming oneself for whatever happened and depression.
Depression is usually defined as anger turned inward. “I must have done something to deserve what happened to me. I am a terrible person. I am useless and nobody cares about me.” These are usually the thoughts of any depressed individual and such thoughts do not help anyone to get better. On the contrary – they lead to more hopelessness and isolation. Because of that, depression is probably one of the hardest stages to go through. Low self-esteem drives the person to withdraw, and as a result that person deprives herself of what she needs the most – support and encouragement of others. In this stage it is not only an immediate loss that is being grieved, but all the past and future losses that happened as a result of this one loss. If that’s a divorce, then the loss of a spouse also brings a loss of a family as a unit. There is also a financial loss – a loss of additional income and expenses on legal procedures. Loss of dreams and plans for the future are equally painful. That’s why it is so important to not give up on people who are in this stage of grief. Talking to them, maintaining contact and spending some time with them even if they don’t feel like being around anybody is very important.
Accepting the loss and regaining hope for the future is the last stage of grief. Accepting the loss does not mean there is no more pain or that I have totally forgotten about the loss. By accepting the loss we fully realize the extent of our loss, but we no longer allow that loss determine who we are, what we do and what we feel. The loss becomes one of the events of the past that impacted us one or the other way. We may or may not know the reasons for that loss to occur, and we have peace about it. We no longer blame others or ourselves for what happened. We may learn some lessons and gain new perspectives on life as a result of what we have experienced, but we no longer feel that life is not worth living without the person or the thing that we lost. We can never replace what has been lost, but we can make new connections and new meaningful relationships. We may start to reach out to others and become involved in their lives. We are looking forward to another day and to the good things that it will bring. We begin to live again, but we cannot do so until we have given grief its time. We may not know the reasons for our losses, but in divine mathematics they somehow add up to be a gain for eternity (2 Cor. 4:17-18).